A Hollywood Master of Scary Movies Examines America’s Schools!

From left to right, Mona Sarshar, Bernadette Maher, Frank Farley, Benhee Lee, and James Boney

From left to right, Mona Sarshar, Bernadette Maher, Frank Farley, Benhee Lee, and James Boney

Is M. Night Shyamalan the Exorcist of Education?

A review of Shyamalan, M. N. (2013). I Got Schooled.  New York: Simon & Schuster. Hardcover, 306 pages, $18.98

Frank Farley, James Boney, Joseph Kumi, Benhee Lee, Bernadette Maher, Michael Minnig, and Mona Sarshar
Temple University
frank.farley@comcast.net

A schoolteacher leaves the schoolhouse and goes Hollywood, becoming a hugely successful director of weird, often scary movies, offbeat films with super-star actors and box-office appeal.  Years and many successes later, he returns to his roots in classroom and schoolhouse, not as a teacher but as a researcher into the problems of contemporary education and what is needed for significant educational improvement, particularly to close the well-known achievement gap between the socio-economic haves versus have-nots.  This is the story of M. Night Shyamalan and his recent book “I Got Schooled.”

In the media-immersed world of the 21st century, it’s of some interest to see what a master of the mediated world might have to say about that old-fashioned institution called school.  His interest in devoting some years to evaluating the problems and suggest solutions was piqued by an experience when scouting high school locations in 2007 in Philadelphia, for his film The Happening.  He looked at two schools and was struck by the dramatic differences in student behaviors between them, and determined to look further into American education.

Shyamalan is a most felicitous writer, with a flair for a turn of phrase, and insight into the people in education’s orbit.  He talks with teachers, administrators, scholars and those big-money folk who hope to buy reform in education such as Bill Gates.  It’s of interest though that some of the leading thinkers in educational research are not on Shyamalan’s list, including such as David Berliner, Gene Glass, and others.

Shyamalan examines through personal visitation and contacts several schools in the country, mostly charter schools, and puts together his diagnosis and 5 point manifesto for educational improvement.  The 5 keys to closing the educational achievement gap that he proposes are (a) getting rid of the worst performing teachers, (b) identifying and developing outstanding school leaders who will lead the educational effort in schools as opposed to administering school buildings, (c) teaching and assessing academic and school performance, (d) smaller schools, and (e) more days and hours of schooling.  In some very sophisticated writing, showing knowledge of research, statistics, education policy, school life, Shyamalan argues the case for the foregoing 5 points as key to reducing the gap.  Although the primary focus of his travels, interviews, and analysis are charter schools, he argues that the 5 keys are essential for improvement in public schools also, and perhaps more so, as he bases much of the success of the 5 keys or “tenets” on charter school experience.

There is little new in Shyamalan’s analysis of the gap and how to close it.  Getting rid of bad teachers, getting administrators more involved in the academics of schooling, tracking performance, reducing school size, and extending the school day and year are found in many reformers’ “to-do lists.”  Shyamalan does a clear and convincing job of showing how these key factors must be considered in any serious discussion of education reform.  One wonders why he put so much effort into this 4-year long project!  Perhaps like some other celebrities not actively working in education, including Bill Gates, John Legend, etc., he wanted to bring that celebrity to bear upon this most important institution, as a means to influence the direction and future of the country; a most worthy motive.   There is a long history of non-educationists diagnosing the problems of American education and proposing solutions (see Edwards, 2014).  In support of Shyamalan’s efforts, we note again that he was once a teacher, and is obviously a very gifted individual.

One leaves this volume uncertain that Shyamalan’s 5 keys are indeed keys to reducing the gap, in the American context.  Key #5, where he recommends an increase of 1/3 more hours in school per year and includes required summer schooling, is probably a non-starter.  In opposition to this proposal, one might challenge education to be more efficient and focused within the current hours of the day, right-sizing the curriculum and removing, for example, memory requirements better handled by a child’s computer or digital device.

This is an engaging incursion into educational policy, educational thought and educational psychology.  But it leaves us with some nagging questions.

  1. The meta-theoretical question of causal influence, on whether the five keys or tenets can CAUSE a reduction in the achievement gap. Deeper analysis of the available research would be needed to draw stronger conclusions here.
  2. The details of the extra-school factors of family, community, peers, on-line engagement, etc., are not much explored here, but we know some of those to be exceptionally important in academic achievement. Shyamalan sticks pretty much to school buildings in his analysis. For media psychologists, the massive incursion into student life of social media, games, and digital media generally must be factored in to any full account of academic success.  The focus of “I Got Schooled” seems incomplete, without more attention to the mediated world of children and youth beyond the school building, and given Shyamalan’s life and outstanding expertise in the media, is a surprising omission.
  3. Finally, the major assessments of the success of schooling in this book are essentially convergent indices, that is, tests and measures of math, science, reading, etc. that tap convergent skills of analysis, criticism, memory and so on as well as college entrance, etc. (see Popham, 1999). The DIVERGENT skills of creative and innovative thought, the Fourth R (risk-taking), are typically not in the picture. But a case can be made that it is the qualities of creativity, innovation, and risk-taking that are America’s signature strengths (Farley, 1991, 2001), and how contemporary schooling does or does not contribute to those must be addressed.  America by just about any criteria leads the world in innovation and creativity, in a wide range of fields, dominating for example the digital revolution of the past decades, and the focus on convergent assessments miss this factor and thus may underestimate the strength of American schooling.

References

Edwards, H.S. (2014). Taking on teacher tenure. Time Magazine, Nov. 3, p. 34-39.

Farley, F. (1991). The Type T Personality. In L.Lipsitt and L.L.Mitnick (Eds.). Self-regulatory behavior and risk-taking:Causes and consequences. (pp.371-382). Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

Farley, F. (2001). A genetic model of creativity and the Type T Personality Complex with educational implications. In M.D. Lynch and C.R. Harris (Eds.). Fostering creativity in children K-8 (pp.71-77). Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

Popham, W.J. (1999). Why standardized test scores don’t measure educational quality. Educational Leadership, 56 (6), 8-15.

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